“Walking in the Fear of the Lord” (Proverbs sermon)

As we started reading the Book of Proverbs in our daily Bible readings this week, one of the first verses we came across was 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” a famous verse in this book. 

— Then at the end of the first chapter, :29 talks about the downfall of those who “did not choose the fear of the Lord.”

— Then Chapter 2:5 says of those who cry out for wisdom: “Then you will discern the fear of the Lord.”

— and by the time we get to chapter 3:7 we find yet again: “Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.”

So FOUR TIMES in just the first three chapters of Proverbs we find this expression: “The fear of the Lord.” And it will be found many more times in this book as well, a total of at least FOURTEEN TIMES. “The fear of the Lord” is obviously a key theme in Proverbs. It is important that each of us today know just what “the fear of the Lord” IS, and how it should affect literally every area of our lives. 

  1. What the fear of the Lord IS.

“The fear of the Lord” does NOT mean what many people think it does: walking around all the time, looking over your shoulder, waiting for God to send a “lightning bolt” your way; just being afraid of what God might do to you next! (NOW, let me say: if you are doing something you KNOW God doesn’t want you to be doing, you might ought to feel that way! But if so, then just STOP DOING THAT THING, right?!)

But in reality, walking in “the fear of the Lord” does not mean cringing in fear, waiting for God to “get” you for something.

You know the best way to find out what something in the Bible means? See how the Bible itself defines it. For example: what is an angel? Well, you might have some ideas about that, but I’ll tell you my favorite definition of angels: “ministering spirits sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation.” You know where I got that from? Right out of the Bible!  Hebrews 1 talks about how Christ is so much greater than the angels; that He is God Himself; and then it says: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14) So there you have it, right? You want a definition of “angels,” you are not going get any better than what the Bible itself says they are, right? And there are SO many places like that in God’s word, that define Biblical terms for us.

SO: the best thing we can do to figure out what “the fear of the Lord” means, is to see what the Bible says about it. Especially here in Proverbs, where it talks so much about “the fear of the Lord.” What do we see here that it tells us about that term? 

— First of all, in Proverbs 2:5, we saw that it says “Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, and discover the knowledge of God.” In Hebrew poetry, parallelism, they will use two terms which mean virtually the same thing. What are the two things here: the “fear of the Lord” and “the knowledge of God.” So to have the Fear of the Lord means to know God, to acknowledge Him in every situation in your life. (we’ll see more about this)

— Then if you look at Chapter 3:7, which we read Tuesday, it says: “Fear the LORD AND TURN AWAY FROM EVIL” So this shows us that there is a purifying element in the fear of the Lord. If you fear God, it will cause you to turn away from sin.

— Then Proverbs 8:13 that we read yesterday pretty much just gives us a flat-out definition: “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil …”. What is the FOTL? It tells us here: It is to hate evil! 

— And Proverbs 16:6 adds to that: “And by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil.” So here again we see that if you have the fear of the Lord, it keeps you from doing sinful things. 

We see this same thing in other places in scripture as well:

— Deuteronomy 6:2 says the fear of the Lord will cause you and your children to keep His commandments.

— I Samuel 12:14 “fear the LORD your God and serve Him”

— II Kings 4:1 “Your servant my husband feared the LORD”

— II Kings 17:25 tells of how some people new to Samaria did NOT fear the Lord. 

So it can be a synonym for “worshiping” God, serving God, respecting God.

But like here in Proverbs, we also see in other scriptures this aspect of “the fear of the Lord” as an awareness of God’s presence, that keeps you from sin:

— For example, in II Chronicles 19:7 when King Jehoshaphat brought a revival in the land, he told the people: “Let the fear of the Lord be upon you; be very careful what you do …”. So again we see the fear of the Lord as an awareness of God’s presence, and our accountability to Him. 

— Job 28:28 Job says: “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.’” So again the fear of the Lord is departing from evil.

So from all these scriptures, we get the idea that to “fear the Lord” means to have a knowledge of God, of His presence, which keeps you from sin, and causes you to obey God. We might give it a definition like this:

The fear of the Lord means: “a continual awareness of the presence of God, and your accountability to Him, which affects every attitude and action in your life.” It doesn’t mean you have a “cringing fear” of God, but it does mean that you are continually aware of His presence, and that awareness of His presence naturally affects everything that you do. 

I know this has happened to you, just like it has to me (in fact, it happened again just the other day.) I was pulling out of the Walmart parking lot, and a police cruiser pulled right in behind me. What do you do when that happens? Well, you are very aware of his presence, aren’t you? I know I am. Now, I am not “afraid” of that policeman. I have no reason to be afraid of him. If I have a shaking fear that the police are going to pull me over or arrest me or harm me for no reason, that’s an indication of an unhealthy relationship. You shouldn’t be afraid of the police like that. When that policeman pulled behind me, I thought, ok; I just got my tag renewed; I just had my car inspected; I haven’t broken the law; I have no reason to fear that officer. But I will admit, WAS very careful in what I did, right? When I came to a place to turn, I sure put my turn signal on! When I saw that 30 mile-an-hour speed limit sign like we have all over town, I sure was careful to keep it at 30!  I was not “afraid” of him — but I will say, I was very aware of his presence! And I was sure to conduct myself in accordance with his presence, in everything I did!

And I think that is very similar to what the meaning of “the fear of the Lord” is. It does NOT mean we walk around with a “shaking fear” of God. If that is how you are with God, it’s an indication of an unhealthy relationship with Him. Maybe it means you don’t understand His love for you rightly. Maybe it mean you don’t realize that “He has plans for you, plans for welfare and not for evil.” Or maybe it means you have one or more areas of your life that you need to get right with Him! Whatever it may be …

But “the fear of the Lord” does NOT mean that we are supposed to walk around terrified of God all the time. It does mean that we should walk with a continual, conscious awareness of His presence, which causes us to live and act rightly, because we know He is always with us, and that we are accountable to Him for everything we think, and say, and do. 

That’s what we saw in Joseph, in Genesis 39:9, when Potiphar’s wife tried to get him to sin with her. His response to her was: “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?” Now, Potiphar wasn’t there. The other servants weren’t there. Why didn’t Joseph just go ahead and commit that sin? Because he knew that GOD was there. Joseph walked in “the fear of the Lord.” He knew that whoever else was or wasn’t there, GOD was always with him, and that he was accountable to HIM for his actions, and so he acted accordingly.

THAT is what the Bible teaches us here in Proverbs, that “the fear of the Lord” is. It is continual awareness of God’s presence, which causes us to act rightly in every situation. As such …

II. The Fear of the Lord Should Affect EVERY area of your life!

When Chapter 1:7 says “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” it means that the fear of the Lord is the foundational belief that affects EVERY other area of our lives.  The fear of YHWH is the FOUNDATION of knowledge, one might translate. It is what all the other knowledge we have, is built upon.   

In Edward Dolnick’s book The Clockwork Universe, he describes how Sir Isaac Newton and the other scientists of his era discovered all they did, about gravity, and calculus, and the universe, because central to their belief was that there was a GOD who had designed this universe, and that He had established an order in it that could be discovered. It is just what Proverbs 1:7 says: “the fear of the Lord was the beginning of (their) knowledge.”  Acknowledging HIM was the central belief that allowed them to discover everything else that they did.

And that should be true for us today as well. “The fear of the Lord” means we know that there is a God we are accountable to, and that should affect ALL of our actions, and EVERYTHING we do. 

It is just like we read this week in Proverbs 3:5-6, those great verses that challenge us to “trust in the LORD with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.” Notice that it says there: “in ALL YOUR WAYS acknowledge Him.” In WHAT ways in your life are you to acknowledge God?  “In ALL your ways.” In other words, EVERYTHING YOU DO should be affected by the fact that you acknowledge God. Every area of your life should be impacted by the fact that there is a God. This is basically another way of saying you are walking in “the fear of the Lord.” Everywhere you go; in everything you do, you are aware of God. You “fear Him.” You “acknowledge Him;” in EVERY AREA OF YOUR LIFE.

This runs counter to what a lot of people seem to think of as “Christianity.” They think being a Christian means you “make a decision” for Jesus to be your Savior, then you get baptized, and now you “go to church” a few times a month, and wait till you go to heaven, but it doesn’t really affect the rest of your life that much.

That is NOT Christianity. Jesus said we must “deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Me.” That means we are to commit our whole lives to Jesus. It means as we see here in Proverbs, that in everything we do, we are to walk in the fear of the Lord. It means we acknowledge Him in ALL of OUR WAYS. Christianity should affect every area of our life. Not just an hour or two a week at church. ALL of our ways. 

So what does this mean? What does a life look like, that acknowledges God in all its ways? That is what this Book of Proverbs is all about. See, many people misunderstand Proverbs. They of it as all these seemingly “random” sayings about all these different things: money, marriage, and so on. But these proverbs are not “random.” What they are showing us what it means to “fear the Lord” and “acknowledge God” in every area of our life. That’s why it has proverbs on marriage, and children, and money, and business, and relationships, and virtually everything under the sun. 

—Because it is showing us what it means to fear God in our finances. 

— It’s showing us what it means to fear God in our business.

— It’s showing us what it means to fear God in our relationships.

And on and on. It’s what this whole book is about: It is showing us what it means to “Fear God” and acknowledge Him in everything we do — and it gives us SO many specific, practical examples of it for every area of our lives. Let’s look at just a few examples from the Proverbs ahead of us:

— I think it’s very interesting that one of the very first principles God shows us of a life that fears Him and acknowledges Him in all their ways, deals with our giving to Him. 3:9 says “Honor YHWH from your wealth, from the FIRST of your produce, so your barns will be filled with plenty.” This says if you “fear the Lord,” one of the “ways” you will acknowledge Him is with your money; you’ll give Him back the FIRST of what He has given you.  

— And Proverbs speaks a LOT about business matters. Chapter 11:1 says  “A false balance is an abomination to the LORD.” I was reading where P.T. Barnum grew up buying rags from town people — and he said that some of them put rocks in their bags of rags, to make them weigh more so they would get more money out of him. That’s cheating, of course. Now some people may say, “Well, business is business.” God says NO!  Cheating at business is an abomination to Him. To walk in “the fear of the Lord” means you give a dollar’s worth of value for the dollar you are paid. Why do we do that? Because we know it’s not just “get away with what you can;” we know that GOD IS ALWAYS WITH US! When we walk in the fear of the Lord we will treat other people rightly in business matters, because we are aware that the Lord is with us, watching everything we do, even in our business! There’s no “separation of church and business”! Our accountability to God should affect everything we do in the business world. And you will find all kinds of business principles like this as you read Proverbs. God is showing you: this is how you are to do business if you are “acknowledging Me in all of your ways.”

— Proverbs is also FULL of advice for our relationships. For example, Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to tell his story seems right, until another comes and examines him.” This reminds us that there are usually two sides to every story, and we honor God when we make sure we listen to BOTH sides, and not just one. 

For example, the actor Cary Grant said: “When I was married to Barbara Hutton, my valet gave an interview saying that I was so cheap I would keep the buttons when I threw away my shirts.” Grant went on to explain that he DID indeed take the buttons off his old shirts, but he said he did it because they were special bone buttons made in England, so he kept them to use as replacements in case one another of his shirts was broken. AND he said in addition, his housekeeper used his old shirts to dust with, and the buttons would scratch the furniture. THAT is why he took the buttons off; not just because he was “cheap.” So there were definitely two sides to that story, weren’t there? (Evenings With Cary Grant, by Nancy Nelson, p. 295)

And the thing is, there usually ARE two sides to just about every story, aren’t there? Don’t be too quick to believe one side, without hearing the other. God is a God of truth, who respects each person without partiality. So if we fear God, and walk in His ways in EVERYTHING we do, then we will listen to both sides of a story, and not show partiality. 

And there is ALL KINDS of relationship advice like that throughout Proverbs as well. This book shows us what our relationships will look like, when we fear the Lord and acknowledge Him in everything

— Then in 22:15 we find a crucial word for parents: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” This reminds us that children do not start off “good.” We all inherit a sin nature. You don’t have to teach kids to lie, or be selfish. It’s “bound up” in our hearts when we are born.

SO we must not leave our children as they are, the Bible says. They need corrective action. This is what “the rod” is. They must be disciplined, and learn that the selfish actions they were born with, are not acceptable.

AND it says, this must be done while they are “a child.” If you do not discipline them, and break their will when they are a child, they will enter into a whole lifetime of rebellion and all of its ugly consequences.  

The first years of a child are crucial. You must teach your child while they are young that there are consequences when they “cross the lines” of disobedience. Proverbs 22:15 and many other proverbs give us wisdom as parents as to how to acknowledge God as we bring up our kids.

And we could go on and on. You will come across proverbs in this book which will address virtually every area of your life. What these Proverbs are doing, is showing us what a life looks like, that “fears God,” and acknowledges Him in every aspect of our existence. 

In Thomas Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree, it’s Christmas, and the church choir is visiting local homes in the village, singing Christmas carols. But Farmer Shiner had a headache that night, so asked the choir to please STOP singing at his house. The choir decided they would not be insulted in this manner and that they would finish their Christmas carols regardless! So they continued singing. Farmer Shiner now opened his window and began to yell at them. 

The fiddler cried out “fortissimy,” ’Drown en! – Drown his spaking!’ 

The choir sang so loud it was impossible to know what Mr. Shiner had said, was saying, or was about to say; but … he appeared to utter enough invectives to consign the whole parish to perdition. 

‘Very onseemly – very!’ said old William, as they retired, ‘Never such a dreadful scene in the whole round o’ my carrel practice – never! And he churchwarden!’ 

‘Only a drap o’ drink got into his head,’ said the fiddler. (The) ’Man’s well enough when he’s in his religious frame (of mind). He’s in his worldly frame (of mind) now. Must ask en to our … party tomorrow night.’ (Thomas Hardy, Under The Greenwood Tree, pp. 41-42)

Now I’m certain that OUR choir would be much more sensitive to people’s headaches than that!  But what the fiddler said about the man’s two different “frames of mind” is a pretty common misconception:  as if you’ve got a “religious” frame of mind to use at church, and a “worldly” frame of mind you employ for other things.

But God’s word tells us: NO! You are NOT to have one “frame” of mind for church, and another one for the other areas of your life. If you are really a Christian, then you are to have ONE frame of mind, which you are to have ALL the time. And that “frame of mind” is that you are walking in “the fear of the Lord,” and acknowledging Him in ALL of your ways. ALL of them. THAT is what Proverbs is teaching us with all these specific examples: it’s showing us how we are to acknowledge God in all of our ways.

NOW, let me add this:  NONE of us will always perfectly walk in the fear of the Lord. NONE of us acknowledge God in ALL of our ways, ALL of the time. That is what it means to be a sinner: we DON’T fear God like we should; we DON’T acknowledge Him in all our ways like we should. We have ALL sinned, and ALL fallen short of the glory of God. That is why we need a Savior. As we saw last week, it is exactly because we have inexcusably failed in what God told us to do, that Jesus got up to go to the cross. I hope you’re trusting what Jesus did on the cross to save you, and not your very imperfect obedience of Him in every area of your life.

And reading Proverbs can help us see that:  as we read all these things we are supposed to be doing with our money and our business and our family and our other relationships, one of the things we notice is that we don’t “measure up” to all this, do we? No one does. And that is exactly why Jesus came … because we don’t measure up.

So as you read all these Proverbs these next couple of weeks, ask God to help you apply these principles in every area of your life. Ask Him to help you be so aware of His presence that you live like what this book shows us. But when you fall short of it — and you will — let it remind you of the Gospel: that Jesus bought your forgiveness for all these things with His death on the cross. And if you’ve never done it before, why don’t you ask Him to save you today … 

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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